Ancient, evergreen and symbolic of good health, the Neem is an integral ingredient in the natural, holistic and traditional system of medicine known as Ayurveda. Read about its medicinal properties and other benefits.
Genus: Azadirachta. Species: A. indica and A. juss.
Neem, Indian lilac, Margosa tree, miracle tree, nimba, arishtha.
Neem is an evergreen tree that typically grows in tropical and semi-tropical regions, where temperatures are high. It is native to the Indian subcontinent, including India, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. It also grows along the sandy riverbanks of Australia, the open lands of the Sahara, some islands in the southern part of Iran, and even some regions in the USA. It can tolerate a wide range of temperatures and can survive droughts. Young saplings need protection from cold, frost and shade. The trees thrive when the soil is deep and sandy, but can also survive in rocky, dry and infertile soils.
history and mythology:
Neem has been considered sacred and a symbol of health since ancient times. The Vedas describe it as ‘one that cures all ailments’. In Sanskrit it is also known as arishtha, meaning ‘perfect, complete and imperishable’, and nimba, meaning ‘giver of good health’. In Unani medicine it was called the blessed tree, and the Persian scholars called it the noble or free tree of India.
It carries spiritual significance and there are many stories that tell of its divine origin. According to Hindu mythology, neem was born out of the drops of the nectar of immortality that were sprinkled on Earth by celestial beings known as devas. Another story tells of the time when the sun took shelter in the neem tree to escape from the terrible powers of the demons.
Neem is also regarded as one of the manifestations of the mother goddess, Kali or Durga. In some southern parts of India it is representative of Mariamman, the goddess who wields a neem leaf to strike down all diseases, and in some other regions it is considered to be the abode of Sithala, the goddess of smallpox. Neem is also associated with Dhanvantari, the god of medicine according to the Vedas.
Ancient Hindus believed that planting neem trees would ensure them a passage to heaven, and neem leaves and flowers are still today strung at the entrance of homes to dispel negative energy.
Neem is an evergreen tree with a lifespan of about 150 to 300 years. It grows very fast and can reach a height of up to 35 to 40 meters. It has a straight trunk with branches that spread widely. The grayish brown bark is rough, hard and scaly. The tree blossoms in spring with small white flowers that emanate a soft fragrance. They yield edible fruits that are oval or round in shape with a thin skin. Neem leaves are quite distinct with their jagged edges.
plant parts used:
Leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, roots, stem, bark and gum.
Neem has been used in the preparation of Ayurvedic medicines for at least 4,000 years, and the earliest records of its medicinal properties appear in the ancient texts that form the basis of Ayurveda. It is also a major constituent of Siddha and Unani medicines. An ancient Tamil text says:
Oh! Damsel of flowing tresses and slender forehead!
Hear you a miracle this!
In this Water hidden in the body
Mix pepper, amla, turmeric and neem.
Soft will your body be;
And dark thine hair on head.
Neem is popularly known as ‘the village pharmacy’ because of its extensive use by village people. In some African countries it is known as ‘the reliever of 40 health disorders’.
Almost every part of the tree has some medicinal property – antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, antiparasitic, anti-diabetic, contraceptive and sedative. Neem is widely used:
As a natural air purifier
Neem produces more oxygen than most trees, and the shade it provides is very cool. Having these trees near dwellings is considered beneficial for health.
As an insect repellant
Neem seed oil is a popular natural repellant. A few drops of this oil are added to the water used to clean floors, in order to keep away bugs and insects.
In fertilizers and pest control
The residue of seeds, after extracting oil, and powdered leaves and bark are added to the soil as a fertilizer. It increases the organic composition of the soil, prevents the loss of nitrogen in the soil and helps in controlling the population of nematodes in the soil. Parts of neem are used in decoctions to improve the health of cattle and livestock.
In personal hygiene and cosmetics
In rural India and Africa, neem twigs are widely used instead of toothpaste and toothbrush. People also chew the twigs as the juice increases immunity. Neem is used in a variety of herbal beauty products for its antiseptic and anti-ageing properties. It keeps the skin supple, healthy and free of pimples and acne.
The tender leaves, shoots and flowers of the neem tree are used in food in India, Burma and other countries of Southeast Asia. The leaves are used in tea, which is very bitter and consumed for health benefits. Neem gum is a rich source of protein.
To prevent and cure various diseases
Neem is used to prevent malaria and cholera. The leaves are used to treat chickenpox, dysentery, diarrhea and skin diseases like psoriasis and eczema. The leaves and fruits are also used as a treatment for tuberculosis and heart disease. Neem oil is used to purify blood, regulate the level of blood sugar, improve liver function, and for healthy hair growth. The flowers are used in the preparation of stimulant and stomachic tonics.
While the benefits of neem are manifold, in excess it can be toxic, especially in small children. It can also cause infertility and miscarriage in women.
Neem grows in abundance in the Indian subcontinent. It helps preserve the ecological balance of the environment and protects it from increases in levels of pollution. Neem can also be successfully used in reforestation and rehabilitating waste lands and degraded ecosystems.
With its rough and tough nature, many health benefits, and its integral role in preserving environment balance, it is no wonder that this miracle tree is considered so vital to Indian culture.